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Crazy Francis

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Every small town needs a certifiable loony so that all the remaining citizens can consider themselves normal. The residents of Kewanee, Illinois, a bit east in Henry County, were more fortunate than most. They did not have to pick one of their own townspeople for the role, they had Fred Francis.

Francis was born in a log cabin four miles outside of Kewanee in 1856, grew up and went to work for the Elgin Watch Company, for whom he soon invented the unbreakable watch spring.

Now, the first signs of real trouble showed up. After receiving $50,000 in royalties for his watch spring, he notified the company to stop paying him because "he had all the money a man needed."

His behavior grew more erratic after moving to his father's land in Kewanee in 1889. Here he began to build a house he called "Woodland Palace" for his new bride, Jeannie.

It was this house that convinced Kewaneans that Fred Francis was crazy. It had a conservatory full of plants so the newlyweds could have tea in a garden even in December—and Kewaneans knew this was not natural. Furthermore, he passed up store-bought furniture and built everything in the house just the right size for Jeannie and himself. There were more serious rumors, too. Rumors that he had built a shower head out of a cake pan, that he went barefoot, that he was vegetarian.

But the clincher was air conditioning. Francis dug a long tunnel from the house out to the woods. Air passing through this tunnel cooled before it entered the house. And so, while normal Kewaneans sat at tables too high and chairs too short, and sweltered in the July heat, crazy Fred and Jeannie Francis took their tea in comfort in a house full of conveniences.

Then, in the 1950s, air conditioning came into general use. Even normal Kewaneans began installing it in their homes. Were they now as crazy as Fred Francis?

The Kewanee Chamber of Commerce solved the problem. The Francis home was put on the National Register of Historic Places, and town brochures upgraded Francis from "crazy" to "ingenious inventor."

Leaving only one problem. A replacement loony so that the good citizens of Kewanee can get back to being normal.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.